COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Dabo Swinney sat down at the podium Saturday night after a gritty win against Texas A&M and nervously laughed.
It was the kind of laugh that said Swinney knew just how fortunate his team was to escape College Station with a win. It was the kind of head-shaking, throw-your-hands-up playful smirk that was still processing exactly what he had just witnessed in a primetime showdown that ended in Clemson's favor against Jimbo Fisher's new group.
Had a couple of things gone differently, the Tigers might not have been so lucky. Had a last-ditch Texas A&M effort at a two-point conversion been successful, Swinney would have headed to overtime.
The Clemson coach has been the first to say all year long that this is the deepest team he has ever had as the Tigers' leader, but every ounce of him Saturday night knew his team had just been tested in a major way.
To his delight, the Tigers passed. But only barely so in a messy 28-26 victory.
Here are seven takeaways from a game that will factor into Clemson's resume come College Football Playoff time:
Clemson won, but the stats are lopsided
Clemson was able to win this game despite having 11 fewer first downs than Texas A&M, having almost 100 fewer yards of total offense, running 13 fewer offensive plays and possessing the ball for almost eight minutes fewer than the Aggies did. Clemson made its fair share of big plays, but in watching the film Sunday, Swinney couldn't help but be frustrated at all of the mental miscues and missed opportunities. He truly believes a handful of errors very well could have cost Clemson the game. His offensive line, he also said, only had three people play to the standard at which he expects: Mitch Hyatt, Sean Pollard and Tremayne Anchrum.
"I knew this was going to be a tough game, and I thought we had a chance to take the air out of the stadium and we didn't do it," Swinney said. "And when you don't do that against teams that are desperate to win in that environment, momentum is a crazy thing."
Clemson's secondary has more questions than we thought
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables told the world this offseason that his secondary is thin, but Saturday raised a slew of questions about where exactly that group goes from here. Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond passed for a whopping 430 yards and three touchdowns, with more than 300 of those yards coming in the second half. Swinney thought his team could have had two more interceptions than it did, and while some of the yardage Clemson gave up was a result of simply stellar opposing quarterback play, much of it was because the Tigers' eyes were in the wrong places and they lost track of focus. If Clemson's first three starting cornerbacks struggled that much against Mond as Clemson's first-stringers, what does that say about the readiness level of the backups?
Kelly Bryant has nerves of steel
Before the Tigers took the field Saturday night, Swinney had a talk with senior Kelly Bryant in which he sat his quarterback down and referenced examples from a season ago when Bryant excelled in big-time road games. He talked to Bryant about the way he played at Louisville last year, when he took on his first road test of the year in a College Game Day atmosphere and bested Lamar Jackson's team by 26 points. He talked to him about how he led Clemson to a 31-17 win at Virginia Tech two weeks later. Bryant has been more intentional lately about working on his breathing to calm him down, and it worked Saturday night.
Trevor Lawrence can perform on the big stage
Clemson coaches made it clear that freshman Trevor Lawrence did nothing wrong when they decided to let Bryant take over the majority of the second half. They simply craved Bryant's experience and expertise in crunch time. The big question with Lawrence was whether he would be able to translate his talent onto a crazy-big stage, though, and he did. Excelling against Furman was one thing, but throwing a 64-yard touchdown seconds after taking his first snap in front of 104,000 people at Texas A&M was an entirely different thing. Clemson can feel good about his poise, too.
Garrett Williams should be healthy next week
Clemson tight end Garrett Williams, who started the season opener when fellow tight end Milan Richard was hurt and who might be one of the most improved players on Clemson's offense, should be healthy to play in Week 3. Swinney confirmed that Williams sustained a knee injury in practice Wednesday before the Texas A&M game, but Williams was medically cleared to play Saturday had Clemson wanted to insert him into the mix. Williams, who tore his ACL in April of 2017, is back in a knee brace, but said he felt healthy during pregame warmups Saturday.
Tee Higgins is ready
Clemson sophomore wide receiver Tee Higgins has made a massive jump from his freshman year to now, but the biggest question for him heading into this week was if he could translate it all on a big stage outside of intrasquad scrimmages in practice. As co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said, this was the first time Higgins was "the guy." He rose to the occasion and had an incredible 64-yard touchdown grab complete with a spin move that had jaws dropping.
"At wideout, we want to have the attitude of 'Hey, we make big plays, we win the game,' " Scott said. "If we don't make the plays, we don’t win."
This win is going to matter
Aside from College Football Playoff implications down the line, which this win will certainly play a role in, this might be the most valuable game for the Tigers in terms of development. Coaches said earlier this week they think often times a team can make it biggest jump from Week 1 to Week 2, and Clemson has so much to coach off of to take with it into the future.
"Early in the season, you come on the road and win in a place like this, that takes an incredible amount of mental toughness and focus and just character," Swinney said. "It was an unbelievable task."